Friday, August 7, 2015

Intern Update: Law and Order League

By CHS intern Ryan Bachman.

The vault is full of records from various Cornwall social clubs and organizations from over the past two centuries. Most of these societies were open to anyone willing to simply take an oath or pay a membership fee, with the notable exception of the secretive Law and Order League. In 1904, Reverend Edward Comfort Starr organized the league after witnessing what he saw as a marked rise in petty crime within the community. According to Starr, gambling, stealing, drunkenness, and general “licentiousness” went virtually unpunished by Cornwall authorities, and the Law and Order League was established as sort of vigilante group to monitor community behavior.

As founder and president of the organization, Starr was responsible for the solicitation of potential league members. Prominent Cornwall men who embodied what Starr considered moral characteristics were sent anonymous invitations to join, conditional upon their payment of ten dollars. According to the League’s constitution, members were not to reveal their identities or even the existence of the club to the community; secrecy even prevailed within the League itself, as the day-to-day operations of the body were controlled by an elite secret council whose identities were kept secret from lay-members.

Ultimately, the Law and Order League exercised little tangible authority in the community. Members were encouraged to monitor their neighbors’ behavior and send detailed reports of any suspicious activity they witnessed to President Starr. According to the organization’s by-laws, members were instructed to “notice, remember, and then write down” (emphasis in original) anything that could be broadly categorized as immoral. Once Starr consulted with the secret council, police were contacted and given all of the information gathered by the League. Due to the secretive nature of the club and the few surviving records relating to its activities, it is unknown how active or successful the society was in moralizing the community. However, the details of its membership roll suggest that after a brief period of popularity, membership numbers steadily dropped until all traces of the society vanished by about 1910.

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